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Saturday, June 26, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Baseball should follow sumo's example, at least in language


Sumo is a sport of big men . . . and big problems.

Take, for example, the scandals with drugs and violence that have dogged the sumo world over the last few years. Or the occasional whispers of thrown matches — that have been around forever.

And now we have the new hoopla over gambling, with the media spotlight shining on sumo again — for the wrong reasons.

Yet, with the common man, I sense there is an even heavier issue. That being that Japan's national sport is now chockfull of overseas talent.

The trouble lies not with the influx of foreign wrestlers perhaps, but rather in Japan's inability to produce ring-worthy competitors of its own. "All the rice you can eat" may not be the recruiting tool it once was.

All such problems have weighed sumo down. Yet, it's still doing one thing right.

That being, sumo wrestlers, whether they be from Japan, Mongolia, Eastern Europe or anywhere, are all required to speak Japanese.

Contrast that with baseball — on either side of the ocean — where players trot out interpreters like socialites with poodles. How odd that, in this most international of ages, the sport that is the more traditionally knuckleheaded — sumo — is the one making the more communicative choice.

There are two stereotypes at play here and both need to be reeled in. The first is that Japanese cannot learn foreign languages, specifically English. And the second states that foreigners cannot learn nihongo.

But open your eyes wide and take a gander at the sumo guys, the foreign versions.

Yes, many of them freeze up when asked questions. They slip on silly smiles, blubber out pat expressions and then repeat "Ne" over and over.

Maybe in the end none of it makes much sense. Yet it all rings true with my own language learning journey, during which I have bungled many a question myself.

That these guys stand up and test their Japanese on national TV makes me want to applaud. It is the only time in my life that I have felt like hugging a naked fat man.

And through time — and I am sure considerable effort — many become superb speakers of Japanese.

I know much of this language focus is due to draconian measures within sumo, which allows foreign wrestlers in but keeps foreign cultures out. Yet the upshot is still loud and clear . . .

That being that foreigners can indeed speak Japanese and — in the context of this culture and their work — should be expected to do so.

Meanwhile, baseball players here rely on interpreters, even old pros like Yomiuri Giants star Alex Ramirez, who seems to understand what's being said and will give a squirt of Japanese on occasion.

Yet — come on — the sumo fellows can do it. Why not the baseball guys? And aren't the questions almost always the same?

Like, "What pitch did you hit for the homer?" How hard can it be to learn the Japanese for "fastball?"

Much worse, however, are Japanese players like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and others who continue to lean on interpreters despite long years abroad. Surely they have soaked in considerable English and use those skills both in daily life and to communicate with teammates and coaches.

As well as with opponents. Ever see this . . .

Matsui stands on base and the first basemen mumbles at him. Matsui then mumbles back.

Well, what was their exchange? Was it?

First baseman: "Nice hit."

Matsui: "Thanks."

Or . . .

FB: "Hi, I'm Joe. What's your name?"

M: "Hideki."

Or . . .

FB: "I adore your cologne. What's the fragrance?"

M: "Wasabi."

Whatever, communication took place and it had to be in English. Why can't Matsui then field an English question about a homerun and then answer, "Fastball!"

Why is this worse than foreign players here? Because Ichiro, Matsui, et al should have had at least six years of English study in school. They have a language advantage that foreign ballplayers in Japan typically do not.

To be fair, some Japanese players — retired pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa comes to mind — have taken questions in English. And athletes from other sports, like golfer Ryo Ishikawa and figure skater Mao Asada, forge ahead with their English, even when it shakes a little.

Can these latter two do it because they are younger and English education is now better? Or can most of the older guys not do it because they never opened a book? Or are just too embarrassed to try?

Here is the point. Only a handful of kids grow up to be pro athletes. But almost all grow up needing language skills. If ballplayers like Ichiro can step up and use their English, no matter how clunky, they have the potential to inspire many more youths, I would wager, than they could ever do with their bats.

If they're brave enough to stand in against Major League pitching, I can't understand why they're not brave enough to swing away with their English.

Unless, that is, they're worried I will hug them.



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